Close Encounters II

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This is part two of my Close Encounters series, inspired by my Liebster Award nomination where I was asked if I had ever experienced a moment that took my breath away. There were a couple that came to mind immediately, and both were caught on video – all the better to share with you! Last week, I wrote about an encounter on a private game reserve. This week, I share a moment that took place later in the same trip.


August 2012 – somewhere not far offshore, Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique

I checked my tank levels and tried to slow my breathing. Looked around, I noted the location of my dive buddy, which wasn’t too hard – his screamin’ blue camo wetsuit made it easy to pick him out from the rest of our group, even in less than ideal conditions. We used up our air at an uncannily similar rate and after a few days of diving together, I was confident we were looking at the same amount of remaining dive time. I kept swimming, fiddling with my camera as I followed the large fish swimming ahead of me.

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I used to be terrified of deep water, mostly because I hated the idea of something with sharp teeth or stinging tentacles sneaking up on me while I bobbed obliviously at the surface. That all changed when I learned to SCUBA dive. As part of the marine portion of my Operation Wallacea expedition, I was spending two weeks in Mozambique doing reef surveys out of the town of Ponta do Ouro. After an absolutely frigid one-day pool course (August means winter in the southern hemisphere), we did our first dive on the reef and most of my fears were laid to rest.

It was like dropping onto the face of another planet, a world where I quickly realized that none of the inhabitants were out to get me – they were too busy going about their lives. The parrot fish audibly picked away at the coral, while colorful anemones waved in the currents. It became a game to see how many nudibranchs we could spot. Every once in a while, we felt the piercing sonar of nearby dolphins, though we never saw the pod, and the sea-turtles sometimes came around to check us out. I was surprised at how much I could hear underwater; the mournful song of the humpback whales was our constant soundtrack, and one morning, we even saw a mother whale who had just given birth, along with her baby and another adolescent female. We were literally out of our element, visitors who were completely dependent on our mechanical life-support systems, and it was exhilarating!

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Some of our most constant dive companions were the potato bass. They were huge groupers, longer than my torso, and very docile. Our divemaster even told us how some of the bolder ones would come right up to divers to have their chins scratched (our group refrained from this practice, since we didn’t want to encourage them to approach the spearfishermen who also dove on these reefs).

It was while filming one of these big fish that I got the surprise of my life. I had started following one particular potato bass, swimming alongside one of my friends. She was pretty close to me, so I let myself sink just a little bit to avoid bumping into her, while still keeping the fish in my line of sight.

Then, the sand exploded.

Along with nearly swallowing my regulator, I also took in about half of the Indian Ocean, though my recovery was certainly better this time around (as opposed to how I froze when I came face to face with the bull elephant at Thanda). We had seen big rays before and knew they were masters of camouflage, but I hadn’t had even the faintest clue that this one was there at all. As the ray swam off and I turned to rejoin the group, I felt that weight again. I felt my place in the world, only this time in an instantaneous, HOLY-(expletive of your choice here) kind of way, the acknowledgement of wow that could have been really, really bad compressed into a single thunderbolt of consciousness.

Note: I’m still looking to get an ID on the ray – I realize the video quality isn’t the greatest, but if any of you marine biology types want to give it a shot, let me know what you think in the comments.

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